Even though Walmart was founded in 1962, it’s on the cutting edge when it comes to transforming retail operations and customer experience by using machine learning, the Internet of Things (IoT) and Big Data. In recent years, its patent applications, position as the second largest online retailer and investment in retail tech and innovation are just a few reasons they are among the retail leaders evolving to take advantage of tech to build their business and provide better service to their customers.
Network of physical locations and online capabilities lead to innovation
Lauren Desegur, VP of customer experience engineering at WalmartLabs said, “We’re essentially creating a bridge where we are enhancing the shopping experience through machine learning. We want to make sure there is a seamless experience between what customers do online and what they do in our stores.”
While its arch nemesis in business may be Amazon.com, Walmart has the advantage of using the best of both worlds—with over 11,000 brick-and-mortar stores and its online experience—in its laboratory to develop retail tech that catapults sales and customer satisfaction. Walmart was an early adopter of RFID to track inventory and has a tech incubator called Store No. 8 in Silicon Valley to“incubate, invest in, and work with other startups, venture capitalists and academics to develop its own proprietary robotics, virtual and augmented reality, machine learning and artificial intelligence technology.”
Recently, Walmart launched Pick-up Towers in some of its stores that are 16 x 8-foot self-service kiosks conveniently located at the entrance to the store that retrieves online orders for customers. Customers can just scan a barcode on their online receipt and within 45 seconds the products they purchased will appear on a conveyor belt. So far, customers give these Pick-up Towers positive reviews as an improvement over the store’s traditional pickup process.
Another way Walmart hopes to improve the customer experience with new retail tech is through Scan and Go Shopping. Customers in the pharmacy and money services areas will be able to use the Walmart app for some aspects of the checkout process instead of waiting until they reach the counter and then will be able to bypass the main queue to get in and out of the store more quickly. This is a step in the direction of being able to bypass the checkout process entirely with the use of computer vision, sensors and machine learning as used at the Amazon Go concept store. Walmart already uses machine learning to optimize the delivery routes of their associate home deliveries.
Unhappy waiting in line?
One of the new ways Walmart might impact its operations is by using facial recognition technology to identify unhappy or frustrated shoppers. As the machines learn to identify different levels of frustration through the facial expressions of those in line, it could trigger additional associates to run the checkouts and eventually could analyze trends over time in a shoppers’ purchase behavior. In 2015, Walmart did also test out this technology to try to detect and prevent theft.
Tags to monitor product consumption
What’s next? According to a patent application Walmart filed, it seems like its next step is integrating IoT tags to products in order to monitor product usage, auto replace products as necessary and monitor expiration dates or product recalls. These sensors would rely on a variety of technology such as Bluetooth, barcodes, radio frequencies and RFID tags and would provide Walmart with an incredible amount of data including the time of day products are used to where the products are kept in the house. This data could help create personalized advertising and expand cross-selling opportunities. If you had a tag reader installed on your fridge, it could scan everything you place inside and alert you when you need to restock or when items are expired. In another example, a RFID system could monitor how many times you pick up your laundry detergent and predict how much is left. This info could be added to your shopping list and fed to Walmart data vaults to illustrate consumer behavior.
Even though patents have been filed, it remains to be seen which technology Walmart will implement and make available to all its customers. One thing does seem certain: There’s no reason to believe that Walmart will slow down its investments in machine learning, IoT and Big Data to boost its performance and enhance the customer experience anytime soon.
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